A litmus test for the internet of things

It’s taken me about 2 months to work out how to show the differences between products that companies say are iot and those that possibly aren’t. I suspect I actually need to explain it but I’d rather have a good conversation on Twitter about it so I can tweak things accordingly.

For clarity, a lock means it’s proprietary.
No lock means it’s open source.
Absence of means its not provided by the company directly.


Introducing #iotangels

There are many reasons why the UK is a great space for internet of things startups: access to the creative industries, manufacturing, advertising, technologists. Funding isn’t one of them sadly as I highlighed in a talk at a Policy Connect event last week at the Design Museum. Which is why I’ll be starting an angel fund specifically focused on supporting internet of things startups.

If you’d like to help, please join us for dinner.

Gonzo Products: how crowdfunding is changing the internet of things

I gave a talk about this at Future Everything last week. As usual the shape of the talk only really came together an hour before (this drives conference organisers nuts) and I thought I’d write it up. If you come to IOT Forum in Cambridge or Thingscon in Berlin you can ask me about this some more.

The dust has settled after an eventful start to 2014 (CES was full of #iot, Nest’s acquisition, SXSW and last week’s OR acquisition) and it’s time for the Milan furniture Fair (which I used to go to when I lived there and in the Tinker years). You couldn’t find an event less in touch with what’s happening in the world of connected products: chairs, ceramics, tables, lampshades. Design in those circles is as artform catering to a rich clientele where the highest form of self-aggrandising for a designer is to complain about technologies they weren’t involved in. None of those products are connected and most of them are designed by professionals with no interest in the internet as a transformative space or set of technologies and principles. It’s a shame because whatever conversation could have happened between product designers & technologists has now been made redundant. In 2014, we are experiencing a new era of product development, what I’m now calling Gonzo Products.

What is a Gonzo product?

- Born on a crowdfunding platform The team of people working on the product exists solely for the purposes of catering to the campaign’s needs, not necessarily to create a bigger business or more products.

- Raising the money it needs to look successful, not the money it needs to make it. Lots of smart products on crowdfunding platforms are trying to look successful to investors first, not necessarily raise the money needed to make the product viable. Any product looking to raise less than £50K to manufacture a product from scratch is basically either very well supported with existing partners or catering to a completely different audience: investors. This is counter-intuitive as crowdfunding was initially developed to help support the early stages of a project. In this case Gonzo Product teams are using crowdfunding as a marketing, market research & finally market validation tool. It’s easier to find angel funding if you’ve got a successful campaign than if you don’t which means crowdfunding is a new way for investors to manage their deal flow for hardware startups.

- Not businesses, projects. Gonzo Product teams will potentially only ever work together to achieve one product only and disband after (see Air Quality Egg).

- Selling the #iot dream, not the reality. Most very high profile Gonzo Products primarily show what the internet of things can be and should be. Selling the dream, not the realities. This is problematic as making a product people can buy, that can be supported and is sold in John Lewis should be the real criteria for success when it comes to #iot. Most gonzo products will be closer to design fiction than they will be to commercial reality and this might influence investors, journalists and other entrepreneurs in the same space but more importantly consumers.

Is this good or bad? I don’t think it’s either. It’s a new product and business space. How much power will Gonzo Products have on the way in which the internet of things develops this year? Plenty. But people like me who are keen to make real businesses and products just have to hold on and learn from them.

A map of UK maker spaces

As part of my work with the Connected Digital Economy Catapult, I’ve been putting together a map of hacker / maker spaces in the UK. These spaces are really important in linking a person with a project idea to a community with resources. Maker spaces are also more than physical resources, they can be a platform for someone to meet like minded people in their area, find co-founders, find the impetus to work on a project that’s been sitting on the side of the kitchen table, or even find the necessary resources to start a business. I’ve only mapped out the physical spaces for now (mostly for the purposes of the report I’m writing) but if you want the complete list of people who also just meet and hang out have a look at the Hacker Space list.

The process of Connecting Products

Last December, I was asked by the Connected Digital Economy Catapult to help them out scoping a possible Connected Products Studio. This is great fun for me as I have tangible experience of building connected products for installations, industrial applications and now the consumer market.

The first thing Maurizio Pilu, the Catapult’s Director asked me to do is put together a consultation workshop where, instead of working in isolation, we would reach out to the possible audience or contributors to such a dedicated space. We ran this workshop last week at the Royal Society of the Arts and were extremely lucky to have attendees from the entire landscape of #iot in the room. I reached out to many friends of course and so did Pilgrim Beart who is helping shape the feasibility report with me.

Consultants (Tom Armitage, Ben Ward, Lee Omar, Graham Hitchen, Georgina Voss, Nick Hunn, Paul Tanner), startups (Radfan, MyJoulo, KNRY, BleepBleeps, bergcloud), incubators (Bethnal Green Ventures), maker spaces (DoesLiverpool), SMEs (PAN Studio, Codasign, Sodabody>data>space, Flexeye, 1248.io, AlertMe, Xively) and corporations (Intel, Cisco, BBC R&D, Ogilvy Digital Labs, SapientNitro) came together and very generously spent the day with me teasing out what the key pain points were in developing a connected product. We then took those and tried to offer possible solutions with the skills in each of the teams. I’ve been to quite a lot of these workshops back in the days of the IOT Special Interest Group  and wanted to live up to the work Graham and Rachel Jones had done.

Pain Points

Maurizio, Pilgrim & I worked on a shortlist of pain points that someone would encounter if they were building a connected product and we put this to the community in a questionnaire via the usual social media channels. They were:

  • Coming up with an idea
  • knowing what hardware to use
  • paying for that hardware
  • knowing what software to build with
  • paying for that software
  • connecting the software and hardware in a scalable way
  • developing a web/mobile service for the product
  • access to space
  • access to prototyping facilities
  • developing a proof of concept
  • doing user research
  • reaching out to potential customers
  • finding co-founders
  • finding corporate partners
  • finding manufacturing partners who can help with small quantities

Through the a morning session conversation the top 5 emerged as:

  • Connecting hardware & software
  • Developing a proof of concept (specifically access to the right expertise)
  • Doing user research / reaching to potential customers (access to experts in user research was also part of this)
  • Finding corporate partners (this related strongly to being to plan the route to market)

The crux of this landscape of pain points felt like it was a lot about meeting the right people at the right time in the process of commercialising a connected product which got me thinking about what a typical process looks like at the moment. I’ve also highlighted the opportunities that were brainstormed that day that felt like they might be totally new and not trying to replicate existing services. All these thoughts will go and feed the report I’ll be writing up for the CDEC in the next month or so. Fun times.


What I learnt from running an internet of things pop-up shop


Today was the last day of Works(Shop) which I’ve been running in my office on most Fridays & Saturdays since end of August. It’s been a very interesting experiment in what the retail experience of consumer internet of things products is about. We went on the road too, showing the products to the British Computing Society, in the Science Museum during an event organised by Flexeye, one of my clients and at Thingmonk where I was a speaker. The clear winners in terms of sales were Little Printers, Bare Conductive kits and a late comer Moistly. Here’s what I think they did right: cute & often self-explanatory packaging or demos. Selling is an emotional exercise. People often buy for others more than they buy for themselves. I used to work in a local art store in Canada as a student, I know.

Bare’s packaging is exquisite. People didn’t care much for what they were buying, they just bought them because it felt instantly that this would be fun and something good for the kids. They’ve thought about this a lot it’s clear and it pays off.

For Little Printer, I’d selected specifically non-geek content to showcase as I knew the people who might buy it would be interested in giving it to someone else or convincing a sceptical loved one of its value. Showing them a publication that showed the current value of bitcoin wouldn’t have helped in that case.

The “For Dummies” books weren’t popular strangely. I think it might be that the brand doesn’t appeal to a geek audience even if the books are awesome (my friends wrote most of the ones we sold). Someone also remarked that if they were going to get their daughter involved, to buy a book “for dummies” wasn’t very encouraging. I agree. Maybe Wiley should have a sub-brand for kids, same content, just a different cover or something.

Finally pricing was really key in the success of Moistly. It was cheap. £13 for a little bit of intelligence when it comes to your plants. Easy. No brainer. It’s hard to do when you’re a startup but it works.

All in all, I’m happy to have done it and allowed products to find new audiences and learn about what I should be doing to get Good Night Lamp to be presented in the best possible light. And it was fun to work with SuperNova studio on this as they designed an awesome brand for it.

A very merry internet of things Christmas

It’s that time of the year where people try to connect their Christmas lights to the internet. This used to be a rather maker-based endeavour but it’s taken on new heights with the past year’s corporate interest in the topic. So here are the top 5 connected Christmas lights projects:

1. OpenPicus lets you control the lights on the Christmas tree in Rome’s airport.

2. Moorescloud let you control the lights on the Christmas tree in Darling Harbour in Sydney.

3. Cheerlights lets you tweet colours to some Christmas lights in the IOBridge office.

4. Cheertree lets you tweet colours to it.

5. And of course you can make it yourself thanks to this How to guide from Make magazine.

PS: Last minute addition to the list is Sony’s NFC Christmas tree (thanks Pierre)

Happy Christmas!

End of year review

1.What did you do in 2013 that you’d never done before?
Put all my efforts into one project.

2. Did you keep your New Years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
No, pretty much stopped going to the gym in February, but thankfully have been keeping quite well. I’d like to try that again.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Plenty. It’s a thing at my age.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

5. What countries did you visit?
US, France, Italy, Germany, Australia, Malaysia.

6. What would you like to have in 2014 that you lacked in 2013?

7. What date from 2013 will remain etched upon your memory?
January 30th.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Not losing faith.

9. What was your biggest failure?
The end of a relationship.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Some health concerns but nothing scary.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
A rather lovely set of ceramics in Munich.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?
Nelson Mandela, RIP.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?
The NSA.

14. Where did most of your money go?
The Good Night Lamp (again)

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The growing frenzy around the internet of things, after so many years of working in this area.

16. What song/album will always remind you of 2013?
The 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
More reflective.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Cooking at home. (same as last year)

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Having conversations with the wrong people. (same as last year)

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
In London.

21. Who did you spend the most time on the phone with?
My mom.

22. Did you fall in love in 2013?

23. What was your favourite TV programme?
I don’t watch TV.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

26. What was the best book(s) you read?
Emmaus by Alessandro Baricco, Travel journals of Jean Paul Sartre to America & South America,

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
This is the Kit.

28. What did you want and get?
A great team to work with.

29. What did you want and not get?
More hours in the day.

30. What were your favourite films of this year?
La Grande Bellezza hands down. Only God Forgives wasn’t as violent as I thought and you know, Ryan Gosling.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I’m turning 33 on Monday and will go ice skating, a circus act and my favorite restaurant for a dinner with friends.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
More money.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2013?
A bit grunge a bit rock.

34. What kept you sane?
Hanging out with A, K, N, L.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Ryan Gosling.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?

37. Who did you miss?
M + M

38. Who was the best new person you met?
A & D.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2013.
Things happen at a pace that you do not control.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year?

“But my life it is good,
And I have what I need
And sometimes the wind,
And sometimes the sea,
And often the rain,
And slightly the sun,
And sometimes I sit still,
But mostly I run”

(Thanks to Molly for initiating this habit, this is the 7th year I’ve done these reviews. Will also attempt Michelle‘s version but might not share it.)

Making, speaking, meeting.

I had lunch last week with some of veterans of the now defunct Special Interest Group on the Internet of Things and we were discussing the taxonomy problems around hackdays, hackathons and other similar events. I drew something inelegant on my sketchbook which I thought I’d cleanup and share.

In the case of this diagram “stakeholders” might be the organisation putting on the event,the sponsors or anyone really who is looking for an ROI on the event itself. This is based on having run all of these kinds of events (except an incubator). I think the interesting tension and frustration of hackdays comes from the completely polar expectations of stakeholders and attendees versus other types of learning, meeting and speaking environments. If someone has had some experience they’d like to share wrt this, ping me on twitter. I’d love to hear it.